By BlazeHedgehog 9 Comments
I've written on this blog before on my tendency, in my younger years, to generate videogame hoaxes. Famously, I got Kotaku to post about something I'd made, and spent the better part of 8 years banned from their commenting system, possibly as a result. I've struggled over the years to figure out what inside of me liked making things with the explicit intent of fooling people, and why I've presumably grown out of it. With hoaxes, I rationalized it out to watching rats solve a maze - that it was almost like designing game, with most of the fun watching how the players solved my "puzzle".
But adjacent to that is my interest in scaring people. At a young age - and I mean very young, like 12 years old - me and my cousins staged a "haunted house" for Halloween. It was strictly for our parents and was mostly just toys arranged in ways we thought were spooky, but when one of them said something we did actually scared them, it gave me a weird sense of satisfaction that I guess stuck with me somehow.
Fast forward five years to high school. You do all sorts of things in high school that you later become pretty embarrassed by, and for me, I had created my own Sonic the Hedgehog fan-character by the name of Blaze the Hedgehog. When you were 15, 16, 17 years old, that kind of thing is considered "normal". All my friends had similar things. They wrote stories about their characters, drew pictures, and did role-playing on AOL chat rooms. Not even necessarily Sonic fan-characters, but just characters, period. Things meant to represent them. Screen names.
I could pretend this part of my life never existed. I could pick a new internet handle. It was early enough in internet culture that if I wanted to, I could erase this part of my life and almost nobody would know. But where's the fun in that? Everybody does embarrassing things when they're a teenager. If you just sweep it under the rug, you'll find it again on down the line and feel even worse about it. It might be cringe-worthy, but it's better to meet it head-on and conquer it.
It was around this time that I had a friend (known then as RedXVI, later known as DragonXVI, Trace Kyshad, and eventually his real name, Malcolm Brown) who was making a fangame called Sonic MADventure. Part adventure game and part RPG, MADventure was a send-up of both the community we all posted in (SFGHQ) and the Sonic franchise at large. And as such, community members needed sprites of their characters to appear in the game. And so, using the template Sonic sprite, I edited it to look like Blaze and imported it in to a Click & Create game project file. But there was one problem: Red wasn't online.
So I made a small area in this project file to run around in. Since I had them lying around, I added zombie sprites from Diablo 2, and a way to shoot at them. And slowly, that area grew, and grew and grew... in to a game I eventually called "The Darkness". In the above video, I spend a little over 15 minutes exploring The Darkness.
But something happened. When I showed my friends the game, one of them told me something unexpected: it scared him.
It scared him? I wasn't really trying to make something scary. I was just working with what I had, really. What gives? He didn't really have any answers for me, he just thought it was creepy. Something about the atmosphere, the sound effects of events happening off screen, and the subject matter came together and spooked him. And for me, the thought that I somehow accidentally frightened a person ignited the long-dormant passion in me. If I did it on accident, could I do it on purpose? What even is a scary game, anyway? I was now on a mission to find out.
My first attempt to make a game that was legitimately scary was "The Darkness 2", as seen in the video above. It sort of became a test bed for a variety of different concepts, but in reality just amounts to more zombies in a maze, but now a spooky sounds CD plays in the background. I did toy with other ideas not really shown in the video; there are segments where you hear things happen off screen (a particularly long dead end triggers the distant sound of glass breaking back the way you came, and upon doubling back you find more monsters waiting for you) and scenes designed to make you curious about something like blood dripping from the ceiling only to discover it was something horrible. In context, though, they were like a child's crayon drawings.
I worked on The Darkness 2 on and off for over a year. Adding features, adding secret modes, adding new functionality. By the end of it I had... well, something, I guess. Scary? No, not really. When data corruption forced me to start over, it gave me an opportunity to step back and rethink a lot of things. No, seriously, what exactly makes horror movies scary? When you break down a game like Silent Hill, what's scary about it mechanically?
"The House" was my final, great effort. The culmination of everything I'd learned. What makes a movie like Nightmare on Elm Street scary? A connection to the viewer. Just as the characters in the movie had their dreams invaded by Freddy Kruger, so too could he invade yours, and there wasn't anything you could do to stop it. Why was Freddy scary? He was scary looking. Threatening. Otherworldly. Literally the boogie man; something to be chased by, something to run from. Constantly one step behind you.
And at its core, what is the most basic fear? Fear of the unknown. That you don't know what's going on. You can't predict what's going to happen. You aren't safe. Nobody is afraid of the dark itself; they're afraid of what they can't see in the dark.
Using these concepts, I tried to build a game to the best of my ability. Of course, as I go on to mention in the video, the isometric perspective, full of sprites ripped from Zombies Ate My Neighbors and Ghoul Patrol, was not the ideal way I'd envisioned this game. In my mind, I saw it as something more tangible. For as much as I tried to make an immersive connection to the player, you're still watching somebody else walk through the environment; instead I'd wanted something first person. Unfortunately, having no idea how 3D modeling works has held me back considerably.
Especially given that I seemed to be on a similar track that lead other developers to create games like Amnesia, Slender, and Outlast. I guess when you sit on good ideas for 9 years, it's inevitable that somebody will get to them before you do. But if nothing else, it at least proved that I was on to something, and given this originated as a quest to figure out what makes a game scary at all, maybe that's good enough.
If you're crazy enough and want to play any of the crummy games featured in this blog, there are download links for them in the video descriptions of each of the videos (except for The House, for reasons that will be obvious if you've watched its accompanying video). I've also created a playlist for these "Let's Narcissism" videos, and there's a fourth and final semi-unrelated video coming out in just a couple days, so stay tuned for that.